I remember the first time I saw a primate. It was at the Philadelphia Zoo and I believe it was an orangutan. I was too young to value it, but I recall looking at it for a few seconds. I stopped. I then looked up at my dad and grandmother who was visiting from out-of-state and said in the sassiest tone a four or five year old could muster:
“This is boooooooooring. I want to see the cats.”
It’s not an understatement to say I didn’t give a guenon’s turd about primates. Growing up, I thought primates were overrated—big cats were the most wonderful, splendid, fantastic thing possible; they were like a cupcake, cake, Pixie-Stix, candy, and unbridled joy combined in animal form to me. It wouldn’t be until about fifteen years later I actually got to getting what the fuss was about. By this time, I’d appreciated primates from an evolutionary perspective, but never really got further than that. At least, until I had taken ANTHRO 105.
In this class, I think I got the best primer for anthropology possible, due entirely to Rockstar Mentor. When the genetics business got out of the way, we started with primates. Every class captivated me more than the last—and then, one day, we went to the zoo to see the primates there. Our instruction was to basically perform an ad libitum scan on any of the primates as part of practice—and I took off running with the assignment. I remember having 2 pages worth of information within a 20 minute period on the chimpanzees. I loved it and I’ve come back to visit the chimpanzees every now and then, remembering the bond I had with doing my “first research.”
In the March 2011 issue of American Journal of Primatology, it’s a special issue dedicated to the idea of the effects of bonds between human and non-human primates on primatological research and practice. In one of the articles by Rose (2011), he examines the influence of human and non-human primates on one another and the effects it has on the environment in which both interact.
Within the article, Rose asserts that “… primatology is vulnerable and verdant field for emersion of the many and often contradictory effects of interspecies bonding.” He argues that sometimes this is necessary; particularly in the case of conservation efforts in places like zoos where people can really see and connect to an individual and be more likely to fund projects related to conservation based on this connection. On the contrary, he also goes on to believe that with these bonds, we can sometimes create a hierarchy of species worth saving (particularly because of its affiliation with human-domination) as opposed to other species that might be left out due to human preferential treatment.
But are these interspecies bonding effects really that contradictory? I think it can be true that while we do want to save a species because of its value as a human-affiliated species, we can also save a lot of other species in the process of conserving one species. For example, the most endangered ape, the Hainan black crested gibbon (Nomascus hainanus).
As it stands currently, the Hainan eastern black crested gibbon is down to 22 members, as of this morning. While the Hainan gibbons are threatened by hunting and habitat loss, it is considered an “umbrella species” because of its preference of living in a mature forest (Chan et al. 2005). Umbrella species often serve as a barometer of the ecological integrity of an ecosystem; when a certain species designated as an umbrella species receives conservation efforts, it is likely to have a positive effect on other species which share the same ecosystem. In the case of conservation efforts to save the Hainan gibbons, particularly in growing pine plantations and gibbon food plant species, other species that are perhaps not related also receive the benefits of the conservation efforts of creating corridors and linking to ravine rainforest habitats for alleviating the habitat loss effects (Chan et al. 2005). By growing these corridors and expanding the available trees, it is thought that by expanding the habitat used by the gibbons, population might be able to increase because of the extra available resources.
In addition to the Hainan gibbons, other species that would receive some benefit from these conservation efforts of adding more trees and creating corridors include vulnerable species such as the Hainan partridge and the Hainan leaf-warbler, which are sympatric with the Hainan gibbons. Both of these bird species tend to prefer lowland forests, of which Hainan gibbons were also known to use, prior to the land being cleared for rubber plantations (Chan et al. 2005). As such, by protecting the Hainan gibbon, some conservation protection is extended to other species as well.
The Seeds of Biosynergy
Another interesting concept Rose raises within the article is the idea of biosynergy. He defines this as the cooperative interaction between species in which the combined effect plays a role in the same ecosystem in which they work together.
Biosynergy is something I’ve always had a great curiosity about, particularly in the context of primates and public health. I’ve been wanting to study the effects of human primate hunters and their relationship with non-human primates in terms of zoonotic transmission and medicine—how do the hunters perceive primates? Can they be used as a “traditional medicine?” If so, how do they heal the body? Fortunately, I’ve had some previous experience with biosynergy in action:
When I did my research at La Suerte Biological Field Station and was following the capuchins (Cebus capucinus) one day, one of the females named “Mona” had spit a seed onto my head. Following this example of biosynergy, when the seed fell from my head and I dashed to pick it up with a leaf, I unknowingly was cooperating with Mona in dispersing the seed and helping the ecosystem we were both in grow. Or, rather, would have had I actually placed the seed somewhere it could grow instead of in a plastic vial to bring home with me as a souvenir. Oops.
Overall, Rose makes some significant points: without any primate biosynergy and our interspecies bonding, we won’t be able to truly understand the role primates play within their environment, and without the environment, we won’t have anything to study, much less a large part of ourselves.
Chan, B.P.L., Fellowes, J.R., Geissmann, T. and Zhang, J. (eds.). (2005). Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan for the Hainan Gibbon – VERSION I (Last Updated November 2005). Kadoorie Farm & Botanic Garden Technical Report No. 3. KFBG, Hong Kong SAR, iii + 33 pp.
Rose AL (2011). Bonding, biophilia, biosynergy, and the future of primates in the wild. American journal of primatology PMID: 20954251